The first Shakespeare play ever saw was an amateur production at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City. It was King Lear and we went on a school trip to the nearest, and cheapest, production our teacher could find.
One of the first plays I was in was an amateur production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Birmingham (I played Philostrate, an inexplicably overlooked role in my opinion) and the first time I ever earned money as an actor was playing Hamlet in a one-man version I toured to schools and arts centres. I used to help run a youth theatre where we did As You Like It and Twelfth Night and I’m currently running schools workshops for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust so for me the boundaries between amateur theatre, professional theatre and education have always been blurred.
I’m no apologist for the Arts Council cuts announced in March but it’s worth remembering that not every Shakespeare production depends on subsidy. Schools and youth theatres love Shakespeare because his plays have big casts so everyone can join in, amateur theatres love him because he’s well-known and attracts an audience and no-budget fringe theatre companies love him because he’s out of copyright so they don’t have to pay performance rights. Between them they stage thousands of productions every year and help create an audience for the major subsidised theatres as well as developing the next generation of professional artists.
Research shows that audience engagement comes, not only from seeing great professional productions, but from joining in and doing it yourself. In 2009 The Wallace Foundation in the US found that: ‘one of the key indicators of potential for engagement in the arts is personal practice – that is, the ways in which present or potential audience members practice art in their own lives.’
The Arts Council’s policy document, Achieving Great Art For Everyone recognises that the arts provide ‘long-lasting benefits to the communities involved, whether as audience members, amateurs, professionals or volunteers.’ They have allocated some extra Lottery funding to help protect touring companies and work with young people but sadly not enough to save the National Association of Youth Theatres.
Some theatres like The Birmingham Rep have replaced their Education Department with Learning and Participation and the RSC has launched its Open Stages campaign to collaborate with amateur theatres. It might sound like a cosmetic rebranding exercise but the principle behind it is a serious one, that art can be something you do, not just something you pay to watch other people doing for for you. So if you really want to support the arts, get up and join in; sell programmes, help build a set or just buy a ticket for that weird show in that strange venue with no-one in it you’ve ever heard of. Better still, get on stage and do it yourself; I can recommend Philostrate as a good place to start.